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Laird Brunson
Photography by Sabin Orr

Champions on the Rise

Desert Companion

Keep an eye on these blazing talents — they’re tomorrow’s sports stars

Trinity Allen

Trinity Allen, Karate

Karate

The Buzz: She recently made the senior U.S. National Team, representing her weight class (under 55 kg) after winning two trial tournaments in Colorado Springs in January.

The Prospects: In May, Allen will travel to Paris to compete in the qualifying tournament for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Trinity Allen’s 2019 was a leaping flurry of kicks and punches. The highlight reel: There she is at the Junior International Cup in Las Vegas, delivering a surgical high-kick to an opponent’s face. There she is in Rijeka, Croatia, pedaling her fists into a blur before firing off a decisive combo. There she is in Ljubljana, Slovenia, unleashing her signature front-kick that locks on like a guided missile. Watching the video, you can feel the potent thud.

To Allen, karate isn’t just a sport. It’s a discipline, a philosophy, and family tradition. “I was pretty much born into it,” says Allen, 18. Her father, Hiroshi, and her grandfather, Bob, were both on the U.S. National Team. Hiroshi owns and runs a local karate academy. But in this case, the family tradition served to liberate rather than limit her.

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“Growing up, I was always keeping to myself, just naturally,” says Allen, who’s enrolled as a psychology major at UNLV. “I’m kind of an introverted person. But when I started competing more around age 12, that’s when I started traveling, and I started going out more and having new experiences. That side of karate brought me out of my shell a lot more. I was able to take more risks and become more of a people person.” It’s not uncommon for Allen’s tournament opponents to become good friends.

Now that she qualified for the senior U.S. National Team in January, Allen will compete in Paris in May for a spot on the U.S. Olympic karate team. What techniques will she unleash then? It’s hard to say, given that her arsenal is always evolving.

“When she was younger, she was a counter-fighter,” Hiroshi says. “And then we transitioned her into more of an aggressive pressure-fighter. Now that we’ve given her all the tools, I’ve kind of stepped away as a coach and I’m letting her find her identity as a fighter. Once she does that, I think she’s going to really explode.” Andrew Kiraly

 

Laird Brunson

Skateboarding

The Buzz: With a slate of respectable contest placements under his belt, he’s most recently landed a sponsorship from Pharmacy Boardshop, and is on the lookout for more sponsors.

The Prospects: Brunson hopes to launch a YouTube channel focused on skateboarding.

If modern skateboarding is the province of technical wizards — with their arsenal of intricate flips and spins — Laird Brunson is a 15-year-old throwback. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, he’s carving up the concrete waves of the Anthem Hills Skate Park with the confident flow of a veteran surfer. He’s not an acrobat; he’s a dancer.

“I guess I try to be more stylish in my skating — I draw out my grinds and stuff like that. My foot placement is a little different — my front foot is always behind the bolts — and I feel like that adds a little more style, too. I try to be fluid.” His surfy approach to ramp and park skating has earned him a handful of sponsors during his budding career, but digital native Brunson knows where real opportunity lies in the 21st century: the internet. His immediate goal is to complete a full-length skate video, and then use that to launch a YouTube channel.

“That’s where skating is going. Like, back in the ’80s, it was like everyone was skating their contests and stuff like that. But now it’s like, ‘What did you post on Instagram? How many views did you get?’ Stuff like that. It’s not as easy as it seems.” He unwittingly hits upon what makes his skate style so watchable. Those long, leisurely carves and grinds, those floaty, luxuriant airs: He makes it all look so easy.

“Laird has really creative tricks that look different,” says Kohl Marantz, a friend who helps Brunson on his videos. “It’s not the same lipslide down the same handrail. There’s a charisma about his skating that pushes him over the edge. He goes to a spot and just puts it down.” Andrew Kiraly

 

Avi’Tal Wilson-Perteete

AVI’TAL WILSON-PERTEETE

Track & Field

The Buzz: A runner who specializes in the 800 meters for UNLV’s indoor and outdoor track-and-field teams, Wilson-Perteete also is on the Rebels’ cross-country team. She is a three-time All-American, a three-time Mountain West Conference 800-meter champion, and a gold-medal winner at last summer’s NACAC U18 & U23 Championships in Querétaro, Mexico.

The Prospects: Wilson-Perteete is among the favorites to win the 800-meter national championship at the 2020 NCAA Division 1 Track & Field Championship in June. A week later she will compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Gifted athletes usually can pinpoint the precise moment when they first recognized they had a special talent. For Avi’Tal Wilson-Perteete, recalling the specifics is a bit challenging. She was in kindergarten. “I would race boys who were in the fifth grade,” says the Oakland native. “And I’d win.”

While she didn’t think much of her blazing speed at the time, her mother took notice — but didn’t immediately enroll her daughter in the nearest track club. Just the opposite. “My mom knew I was going to be good in track, but she didn’t want me to (compete) when I was young because she heard stories about people who got burned-out,” Wilson-Perteete recalls. “She put me in literally every other sport and after-school activity, except track.”

The ban was lifted when Wilson-Perteete got to high school, where, as a freshman, she initially competed in the 100 and 200 meters. At her third meet, her coach asked if she wanted to try the 800 meters. She did not. “He said, ‘If you run and win your heat, you’ll get a free T-shirt,” Wilson-Perteete says. “Of course, I said yes, because who doesn’t want a free T-shirt?” She won, by something like 120 meters. “It wasn’t a super-fast time — 2 minutes, 33 seconds — but the fact I was so far ahead of everybody and I looked so fast, I was like, ‘Wow! This might be something I can actually be good at.’”

She went on to collect more first-place medals, trophies, and, yes, T-shirts throughout high school. Then, during her senior season, her phone rang. On the other line was Jebreh Harris, who at the time was UNLV’s head cross-country and assistant track-and-field coach. Harris made Wilson-Perteete a scholarship offer she couldn’t refuse. “I really didn’t need to look anywhere else,” she says. “I knew this was the place for me.”

Last summer, after placing third in the 800 at the NCAA national championships meet, Wilson-Perteete was one of two women selected to run the 800 for Team USA in an event in Mexico for competitors ages 20-23. She captured the gold medal. Now she has a chance to claim a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team and race in the Tokyo Games.

The effervescent 20-year-old is taking it all in stride. “Whatever happens, happens,” she says. “I heard this on a podcast: If you think too much about the result you want to achieve, then in your head you’ve already achieved it, and then your subsequent actions reflect that, and you kind of lose your drive a little. So I prefer not to think too far ahead and just go with what I know and be the best I can be.”

In other words, she’s far from burned-out. Her mother’s plan worked.

“Her deciding that I wasn’t going to compete in track until I was in high school was the best thing she could’ve done for me,” Wilson-Perteete says. “She made the right call, 1,000 percent. And I’m thankful for that every day.” Matt Jacob

 

Zyrus Fiaseu

Zyrus Fiaseu

Football

The Buzz: During a spectacular 2019 season in which he helped lead Liberty High School to its first state football championship, Fiaseu rushed for 1,026 yards and 17 touchdowns. Fiaseu also played defensive back/linebacker and recorded 32 total tackles and three interceptions.

The Prospects: Fiaseu already has drawn interest from as many as 10 colleges, including UNLV, UNR, San Diego State, Oregon, and Nebraska. College coaches are enthralled by the 17-year-old’s size (6-feet, 215 pounds), production (he’s averaged 7.2 yards per rush), power, and versatility. He’s expected to play linebacker or running back at the next level.

The words are jarring. Not so much because of the context — the young man is a football player, after all — but because of how they’re delivered: barely audible, almost to the point of being sheepish. “If you give me the ball,” says soft-spoken Zyrus Fiaseu, “I’m going to try to, like, kill you.”

Fiaseu had spent the previous 20 minutes checking all the right boxes: humble, grateful, deferential. But with that sentence, Fiaseu reminds his inquisitor that when he dons a helmet and shoulder pads, he becomes a bad dude with bad intentions.

It’s pretty much been this way since Fiaseu was 6 years old and first followed his older brother onto a football field. “By the time I was in fourth or fifth grade, I thought, ‘Dang, I might really be good at this.’”

While he was playing for a youth football team whose players were mostly zoned for Liberty High School, Fiaseu says, Liberty head coach Rich Muraco invited Fiaseu (then just 12), his brother, and a few of his teammates to train with the high-school players. Liberty’s coaches knew they had an impact player heading their way. “They always told me, ‘When you get to high school, you’re going to be on the varsity team as a freshman,’” Fiaseu says.

Sure enough, as a freshman and sophomore, Fiaseu played running back (rushing for a combined 1,364 yards and 12 touchdowns) and defensive back. Then last season, he exploded for 1,026 rushing yards and 18 total touchdowns while also collecting 32 tackles and three interceptions on defense. Thanks in large part to Fiaseu’s play, the Liberty Patriots rallied from an 0-5 start to close the season with 10 straight wins, capped by a 50-7 rout of Centennial High School in the championship game.

During their magical three-game playoff run, the Patriots erased a 17-3 halftime deficit and knocked off 10-time defending state champion Bishop Gorman 30-24, with Fiaseu scoring the game-winning touchdown in overtime.

So it’s not surprising that Fiaseu’s mailbox has been inundated with letters from college football recruiters. When the time comes to decide on a college, he says he’ll be looking for two key attributes: “On the field, it’s stability in the coaching staff. But more importantly, I want a college that will offer me more than just football. They say college is a 40-year decision, not a four-year decision. So I want to go somewhere that will get me ready for life.”

And what if that life includes a stop at football’s ultimate level?

“The NFL has been a dream since I first started playing football as a kid,” he says. “But my parents always tell me to have a backup plan. ... If the NFL gives me that opportunity, of course I’ll take it. But if they don’t, I’ll have my backup plan in my back pocket and just go from there.” Matt Jacob

 

Taylor Bigby

Taylor Bigby

Basketball

The Buzz: A nationally ranked high school guard, she’s equally good at setting up teammates or scoring herself.

The Prospects: Her skills in high demand, Taylor has committed to play college hoops at the University of Oregon, which has been recruiting her since her freshman year.

Taylor Bigby was about 10 years old when she told her parents she wanted to try basketball. They were surprised. She was a girly girl who was into cheerleading. They thought she had no interest in sports. But her dad, Lamar Bigby, coached a team. Taylor spent a lot of time at his practices, and it captured her interest. So, the family signed her up for a kids team at the community rec center.

“We put her in, like, a little NJB (National Junior Basketball) eight-week program,” her mother, Lonyae Bigby, says. “I remember telling (Lamar), this will be over in eight weeks. I remember our first tryout for NJB, where they do a draft and pick the kids. I didn’t even think that she could pass the draft. Could she dribble, could she shoot? We had not seen her do any of that.”

Today, ESPN ranks her daughter among the top 25 girls basketball players in the country. In Taylor’s position, guard, she’s No. 8. A junior at Centennial High School, she’s committed to University of Oregon, where she’ll go on a scholarship in 2021.

Recruiters write about her “big-guard drives” and how she’s “active on the glass.” Watching her on the court, you can see this in action — how she anticipates where the ball is going and moves it down the court with ease. She’s also big on setting up shots for her teammates, but lately has learned to be more selfish, she says. “Sometimes, I’m the person who needs to be scoring the goal. Sometimes I don’t need to make the play, I am the play.”

She’s been pursued by recruiters since seventh grade, written about in national sports magazines and on websites. But none of this seems to faze Taylor, who is as easy to approach and talk to as any other 16-year-old.

 “I do like to shop,” she says, reflecting on her life balance. She also likes to watch movies and chill with her family. Still, “basketball is my life. … I practice six days a week and work out on my own three to four times a week. So, I’m usually pretty busy with that and when I’m not, I’m tired.”

“I am her mom, so I’m there to support her and do all the other fun things with her,” Lonyae says. “I don’t have a background in basketball, so we do all of our girly things together.”

She adds that the surprise of her daughter going into sports has been a nice one. “It fits now, because this is what she loves. But Taylor, I think anything she wanted to do, she would do it well.” Heidi Kyser

 

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